Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 11, 2011
There are no designated trails, only the tracks of elk. There are no posted signs, only a slight indentation through the tundra. There are no bridges, only fallen logs across the creeks. There are no people other than an occasional backpacker staggered by serenity and solitude.
This wild and sacred place is not far from Aspen, but in 30 years of hiking the Elk Range, I had never been there until last weekend. Here is the archetype wilderness, where man is only a visitor, and a rare visitor at that. Here is a mountain valley with lakes and streams, forests and meadows, all bounded by towering peaks. Here is a place important, not only to me, but for its intrinsic value, for itself.
I call this place sacred because this is where I feel closest to pristine creation, where I witness the balance of nature and sense the palpable spirit of all living things. It is good fortune to have such a place so near to home, so close to my heart, so tangible and awesomely beautiful, a place where I can absorb and reflect, a place that soothes my senses and gratifies my soul.
What are the lessons here? Why am I so moved by a place where time has stood still for millennia? Purity is one answer. Dipping my water bottle into a clear, burbling stream, I drink deep of ice cold water from a thousand springs fed by glacial remnants and underground aquifers, the best water filtration and storage system known.
Hiking through lush foliage, shoulder high, I taste invigorating air, lightly scented and rich with oxygen, sweet and sensual. Deep draughts fill my lungs, enrich my blood and stimulate my brain.
My eyes take pleasure in the way the sun illuminates jagged escarpments and filters softly through stands of spruce and fir. My ears perk at the calls of birds and squirrels whose voices are the language of the forests and meadows. One morning, I’m awakened as the earth resonates with the hoofbeats of elk. One night, I listen as God’s dog sings to a crescent moon, its clarion solo answered by a chorus of discordant yaps echoing from the very summits.
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This place is a pocket wilderness, a micro world. It is an island, an estuary, a cloister, an eddy where the concerns of man are held at bay except in the thoughts of the observer, which are gratefully obliterated by wild immersion. Here is a moment of reprieve from the madly spinning world of man.
There are few places like this anymore, places left to the sojourner who seeks solace in nature’s wild embrace, who finds in solitude the stimulus of something deeper than obligations and expedients. Some say wilderness is a façade that cloaks the “real world,” but when you’re there, kneeling by a stream in the forest or ascending a tundra-carpeted ridge toward a high peak, you begin to understand what is real and what is virtual.
While the pragmatists, the technocrats, the industrialists draw sharp lines between themselves and the vibrancy of the living world, this world thrives. While cultural imperatives draw us apart from the creative force of life and attribute all meaning to man and his achievements, this world pulses. While technology contrives the divine supremacy of human agency, as if there were no authority higher than the institutional divine, this world radiates pure divinity.
Thoreau wrote that any civilization that distances itself from the fount of life will be brought down by the loss of contact with its wild origins: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
To revise Hobbes, nature is the ultimate Leviathan, the overarching force to which we owe obeisance, from which we draw sustenance, in which we find mutual dependence. Myopically, we fail to make a lasting peace with nature. Instead, we war against it as if it were the “other,” coercing it to serve man’s implacable will at any costs. Man wars against man with the same delusion of separation.
This place tells a story that is older than man, a story about creative forces and dynamic influences, a story humbling to those with sensory capacities and the freedom to feel something greater than themselves. This place instills a sense of humility by contact with the deepest truth, which springs from wild and sacred places.
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